Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Feast for the Gods

I remember my mother telling me that I should eat well 
because the food is full of vitamins and energy. 
It will make you strong, she said, give you taakat (strength in hindi) like Baby Krishna and Goddess Durga. 
Then you can play and run and draw and do whatever you like.

I wrote these words in a workshop with Ana Ventura in 2013, before the exercise of having to design a bib which conveyed a personal message about food and nutrition. The bib was a collage of golden spoons, with little bits of food scattered here and there as embellishment.

When I come to think about it, I suppose I have always associated food with the divine and the magic.
That is not to say I haven't had my fair share of traumas, obsessions, compulsive diets, and restrictions. 
But through all of that, I have clung on to the message conveyed to me as I was being fed as a child...that food could transmit love, pleasure, celebration, strength and energy.

I can still hear my mother coaxing me on days I was a bit fussy, saying: "but my rani (queen) how will you jump and play if you don't eat first?" She still does it now with my niece and nephew. 
I suppose I will also do so when I have my child. 

I have been reflecting upon all of this over the past few months. These months in which I have hardly posted, because I have been finishing the book. Yesterday I sent off the last of the illustrations to my publishers EkarĂ© in Barcelona, 
and with only editing and layout left to be done, I feel the need to write about the many things I have realized through this process. 

In the past weeks, I have worked with an intensive rhythm which I didn't know was possible. I completely plunged into the story, not allowing myself very many interruptions of any kind. I tried to rest, but on many nights, sleep itself was interrupted by my desire to keep on working. So I used food to balance my energy in the ways that my Nani and my mother had taught me. 

I drew for hours on end, and when my hand hurt, I treated myself to a session of Shiatsu or a walk in the park. I needed to finished the book before autumn arrived, as if to mark the end of a cycle, and the beginning of a new one. 

When I first started working on this book, I thought I was doing so because of my need to tell my family story. 
Of course that has a lot to do with it. Growing up, Nani's visits were really important to me because when she came, she brought with her not only rituals, recipes, but so much history and connection to our ancestral past. 

But as much as this book is about cultural inheritance, 
I suppose it is as much about our need for stories and storytelling. My childhood fairytales included giants and beanstalks, as well as naughty blue child-gods who stole butter 
and elephant gods who loved sweets. 
My visual imagination was constantly growing with stories from Ghana, from India, from Morocco. When Nani came to visit, the most important part of each day for me was bedtime. I still remember the stories she told us, and how they would come to life. 

Her anecdotes about the Gods and Goddesses fascinated me. I think I began to assimilate it all when I drew the end papers of the book last week. In every detail of every character I remembered a fragment of a story my Nani told me. The end papers turned into a feast for the Gods, just like all of the feasts we have shared during our family reunions, during mealtimes with Nani, during weddings and even funerals. 

Today, or perhaps over the next few days, after I have had a rest, I too will prepare a feast for the Gods, to celebrate what has been one of the most beautiful (and intense) 
creative processes I could have ever imagined... gratitude for all the stories, for all the food, the shakti, the takaat, and for all the magic I was fed from childhood 
and that I continue to receive. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016


A few days before celebrating my birthday this year, I was working on Chapter 8 of the book: A Ghanaian Family Reunion, which takes place in the summer of 1991. 

The day I arrived to Accra for the reunion, we celebrated my 13th birthday. This year was the first that Nani's hug or phone call didn't begin my day. Drawing this scene however, made me feel her presence.

It's funny how even the events that I draw in the book parallel those I am living. Or perhaps it's the other way around? Or both?
I am not quite sure. What I do know for certain however, is that throughout the book, in even the most trying moments, there is an overpowering sense of celebration. 

Nani celebrated everything. She would hand us out gift's on my grandfather's birthday, years after he had passed away. 
She remembered hundreds of birthdays and anniversaries. And not just those of her close family (yes we are about a hundred family members more or less), but those of second cousins-twice-removed, sisters-in-law, and encounters on one of her many journeys. In her cupboard she would always had a stack of gifts prepared for any given occasion. Gifts that she had received and felt happier giving away. 

She could celebrate any little thing: a beautiful mantra she liked listen to. She would enjoy modern technology with us 
even if it frightened her at first, like when we took her to the cinema to watch a dinosaur movie, or when we first gave her an iPad for her birthday.

Even the simplest daily habits such as teatime in bed could turn into something of a magical celebration with her.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Ritual is beauty

During my interview for the video of my artist residence, when I was asked to explain what ritual is to me, I replied without thinking: ritual is beauty. It is connecting to yourself. It´s telling yourself a story (or many), acting it out and sharing it. 

Since then, I have thought a lot about rituals and the space they have in my work, my process and my life. 

I learned so much about all of this from my Nani. Her discipline in her daily life turned the smallest daily routine into a ritual. Her grooming, her exercises, her readings, even her family phone calls and watching her Bollywood tv series had something sacred and beautiful about them. I remember one of the first times I ever wore a sari. I must have been 18 years old and spent over an hour in Nani's room in Accra struggling with my aunt over the pleats and pins. Nani entered her room to get dressed and in an instant of absolute grace and elegance she wrapped her white silk muslin sari around her waist and shoulder, swooped up her hair in an elegant bun and walked down to the car. 
I remember it being a breathtaking moment. 
Her ritual was beauty. 

I constantly try to bring these little lessons of hers into my daily life. In my work process, the places I sit to draw, the music I need to listen to while drawing, the tea I drink between lines and colours, to the way I have begun to organize my pencils have turned into little daily rituals.

And then there is the content. The gods and goddesses 
that appear in this book are many. 
Each one has their significance, each with their own characteristics and symbolism. In the narrative, Nani brings these divine beings in childlike form to each of our homes to transmit values, lessons, blessing and well being. 
Their presence in itself is a ritual, as is their form, the objects they carry and the symbols they use. 

Through the rituals of cooking and ceremony, there is much celebration. 
The gods turn into cooking assistants. 

They are offered sweets and flowers. 

They enjoy eating their offerings.

Because, obviously, the gods and goddesses also eat...

as they offer in return nutrition, new beginnings, health, prosperity, well being, abundance, love and light.

In my own little way, through this book I hope to transmit at least some of all of this beauty I am so grateful 
to have received from my Nani. 

Monday, June 27, 2016


As I am nearing the end of the book, I have begun to think a lot about what exactly it is I am doing. Why have I chosen to tell this story? Or did it choose me? 

Five years ago, before I even began this story, I made this illustration in a workshop. 

Something about it struck me. Something about the simplicity of the lines paired with the words managed to capture the essence of my Nani, whose larger than life personality had always overwhelmed me. Was this the beginning of it all? 
Did I begin to unveil my desire to capture that essence at that moment? 

Years of research followed. 
I sketched and wrote.

I collected fragments of information, I interviewed tons of family members, and spent my days following Nani around, filming her, recording her voice. And now, while at the final stages of the book, I begin to ask myself: 

How did the narration structure itself so intuitively? 
How did I decide what to include and what to leave out? 

How have anecdotes, references and moments that are not explicitly written about managed to make themselves a way into the book, through symbols or through little details? 

But most of all, I have been thinking a lot about memory. 
About my memory. Remembering is magic. 
Every time I remember I see or learn something new:
something that was perhaps there, or something I needed to add to 
understand the story better. 

I chose to remember my childhood this a collection of facts mixed together with fantasy, humor and a lot of poetic license. 
Some of the facts aren't quite exact. Some of the memories actually happened sooner or later but were switched around 
to make the story read and flow more naturally. 
This is not to say that I have been clumsy. To the best of my efforts, I have tried to be as precise as possible.  

I have tried above all to stay true to the essence of who I am, of the story I want to tell. It's a simple story really: 

that of a grandmother who through her sweets, her stories, her magic, her travels manages to weave together a family strewn across the world with a link of love and celebration.

Such things need to be remembered. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Nani´s energy

Chapter 5, Snowy walks in Demarest, goes through 
Nani´s visit to New Jersey to visit her grand daughters 
Anjali and Sandhya and their parents. 

A recurring anecdote among all of us cousins is how the first night
we ever shared a bed with Nani, we would be shaken out of sleep in the wee wee hours of the morning thinking there was an earthquake.

The earthquake was always turned out to be 
Nani´s tremendous energy as she would do her 
bed-yoga routine to begin her day.

Here is a small table of her routine.

Nani's energy always seemed endless. She woke up before the break of dawn, and throughout the day would exercise, cook, knit, sew, talk on the phone to family members far away, tell stories. And she would do it all with a great big smile on her face, that would sometimes break out into a thunderous cackle of contagious laughter.

Nani's cooking was the taste of home, of her Sindh. 

But more delicious than the taste of the food was the way she could make cooking up a feast seem so effortless and easy. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Arrival

Soon after her departure, I finished Chapter 3 of Nani's book 
and began Chapter 4: Nani's Visits. 

The chapter shows her first trip to Casablanca as a widow, and it was moving and bittersweet to draw her coming home to visit us so soon after she had left. 

 Parallel to her arrival, the chapter celebrates Diwali, the festival of lights, and possibly my favorite day of the year. 
During the Diwali ceremony, Ganesha is invoked to clear obstacles.  The Goddess Laxmi is also welcomed into the home to bring prosperity and wealth. 

The symbol of her footprints is often painted with color pigment (Rangoli) at the entrance of the home to welcome her.

During the many preparatory rituals, the house is thoroughly cleaned. This ritual is called Safai.

Sweets (mithais) are prepared and rangoli and oil lamps (diyas)
decorate the entrance of the home.

Drawing this chapter, I missed Nani terribly. 
I looked back through my childhood memories 
and found so many little details I had forgotten. 
All of them were love.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Departure

While working on Chapter 3, and processing the death of my grandfather 33 years ago, Nani was taken ill. I allowed myself to process through the grief and my feelings through my work. I began to prepare for her departure, as I was drawing and writing about my grandfather's departure all those years ago, almost to the day. 

I began to read a lot about death, and when visiting Nani in Casablanca, I reread the Katha Upanishad (below an excerpt from Eknath Easwaran's translation), a dialogue between Nachiketa (a young child prince) and Yama (the God of Death). 


Teach me of That you see as beyond right
And wrong, cause and effect, past and future.


I will give you the Word all the scriptures
Glorify, all spiritual disciplines
Express, to attain which aspirants lead
A life of sense-restraint and self-naughting.
It is O M. This symbol of the Godhead
Is the highest. Realizing it one finds
Complete fulfillment of all one's longings.
It is of the greatest support to all seekers.
Those in whose hearts O M reverberates
Unceasingly are indeed blessed
And deeply loved as one who is the Self.

The all-knowing Self was never born,
Nor will it die. Beyond cause and effect,
This Self is eternal and immutable.
When the body dies, the Self does not die.
If the slayer believes that he can slay
Or the slain believes that he can be slain,
Neither knows the truth. The eternal Self
Slays not, nor is ever slain.

Hidden in the heart of every creature
Exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest,
Greater than the greatest. They go beyond
Sorrow who extinguish their self-will
And behold the glory of the Self
Through the grace of the Lord of Love.

To help me visualize him, I found this image of Yama which I carried with me over the days.
Of course, he too found his way into the book...

I contemplated the idea of the Self. 
I thought much about death and loss, about light, 
energy, stars and constellations. 

I also thought much about life, and mostly about Nani's life.
I thought about her very many homes...

I began to think of death as celebration...

celebration of life, of all the moments I was lucky 
enough to share with her, of all the stories 
and recipes she generously gave me.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Garuda, the Bird God

Chapter 3 came together very slowly. 
It was hard for me to draw and imagine 
my grandfather in his final days.

I plunged into the details, to distract myself from the 
solemnity of the task at hand. 

After a few weeks, my publisher Irene from EkarĂ© came to visit me and look through the work.
She entered the studio with a package delicately wrapped in white tissue paper. Before beginning our session, she said she had to show me something. As she unwrapped the package she told me it was the first second-hand book she had ever bought, and that she had purchased it in Germany in 1978 (the year of my birth).

It was a catalogue of an exhibition of Indian miniature paintings.
She said that looking through the new work, she couldn't stop thinking about how miniaturist my drawings had become, and wanted to show me the catalogue.

It was wonderful...all the details, the colors. 

And then, I came across a page and stopped dead in my tracks.
It was this image of the Bird God, Garuda, carrying Rama and Sita on his back and flying to the skies. 

Irene asked me what the matter was when she saw my reaction, so I pulled out a sketch I had made two years earlier. It was similar in so many ways, and my version had been lacking in details.
Seeing this miniature would eventually help me resolve what for me is one of the most crucial scenes of the book.
It was exactly what I needed.

When writing and planning this part of the book, I had thought
that this moment should be the first divine and fantastical one. 
And that before departing, my grandfather would transform into Garuda and take Nani on a ride through the skies and show her all the homes of her children where she would now live.

It would be a scene that mixes magic, fantasy, Bollywood kitsch,
love, sadness and celebration.
I had been so blocked and reluctant to make this image, 
and all of a sudden, I could think of nothing else...

Friday, June 3, 2016

Returning from Residence

Before leaving residence, rather than rush through Chapter 3, 
I instead worked on my glossary of symbols. 
In the book, every chapter has two borders with special symbols on the top and bottom. 
Each reveal a lot about the story and there will be a glossary at the end of the book to explain all of them. 

Writing and researching helped me connect with 
all the details of the book, and realize how many
little memories and hidden meanings crawl over all of the drawings.

After finishing the glossary, 
and finishing the final notes on the wall, 
I began to prepare my departure.

I bid my dear friend Vaca farewell.

Took a last glimpse at the flowering trees, 
and set on my way. 

I was curious as to how my rhythm of work would evolve 
back in Madrid, bustled by so many distractions and daily obligations.

And then the day after returning from residence, I received a wonderful gift. My friend Eric who runs a wonderful start-up called U2Guide had just moved into the private office spaces one floor
up from my co-working studio. His space was large, full of light
and currently empty while he was waiting to recruit his team.
He invited me up for a coffee and gave me a set of keys, so that I could come in and draw whenever I wished. 

The light was unbelievable. 
As was the timing...I had been especially worried about 
working on Chapter 3 in a public space with many people. 
Having access to this private space made me feel in sorts that I had an extension on my residence.

I began to work on Chapter 3: Departing Pune.
I drew trees.

I drew how I imagined Paradise building, 
the building my grandfather owned and lived in time 
and again in Pune, before passing away.

I added details such as Mum's Beatles posters in the cupboard, 
or the sewing machine she and her sisters 
used to make fashionable dresses on. 

Although I had returned from residence, 
I was able to connect completely with the work. 
It was as if over there, something so profoundly basic in my creative process had transformed, and that from 
that moment I would be able to enter entirely into 
the book every time I sit down to work on it.